The physical safety of workers is often at the forefront of work health and safety (WHS) considerations, however with the recent news of a farmer taking his own life and the lives of his wife and three children in Lockhart NSW, we are reminded of the importance of managing mental health and the possible implications in the workplace.

It is critical that persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs) understand that obligations under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (WHS Act) apply to both the physical and the mental safety of employees. Under the WHS Act, a PCBU must eliminate the risk to workers’ health and safety so far as is reasonably practicable. If eliminating a risk is not practicable, then the risks must be minimised so far as is reasonably practicable. Of course, identifying psychological hazards can be difficult for employers due to the private nature of these types of issues.

In any 12 month period, as many as one in five Australians will experience a mental illness. According to the National Rural Health Alliance, men in rural Australia were twice as likely to die by taking their own lives as their urban-living counterparts. Job stress is not of itself a mental disorder, however according to Safe Work Australia prolonged exposure to job stress is linked with an increase in absences, reduced productivity, withdrawal and increased risk of making errors at work. Further, exposure to high stress levels can lead to mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety.

The agribusiness industry faces an array of challenges and includes occupations that are acknowledged to be both physically and mentally demanding, however the work itself may not be the most significant safety risk to workers. There is a unique set of barriers to good mental health in rural communities and employers in the industry should strive to eliminate these barriers.

A Beyond Blue study identified the following key barriers to seeking help for mental illness:

  • a preference for seeking help from family and friends, instead of from health professionals
  • the stigma associated with mental illness and a lack of acceptance of mental health care
  • concerns of confidentiality: due to small population sizes and close communities, people had concerns that seeking help for mental illness would not be sufficiently anonymous, and
  • large geographical distances limiting the availability of formal health providers.

Employers in rural communities have a unique opportunity, and indeed responsibility, to break down the stigma attached to mental illness and lead change in the workplace that will benefit the community at large.

Recently we have seen the introduction of many new resources in an effort to ensure Australians in rural areas have access to information and assistance with mental health. The Federal Agriculture Minister, Barnaby Joyce has confirmed the funding of two programs administered by the Department of Social Services would continue through 2014 with a $10.7 million boost to the Social and Community Support Package, acknowledging that the services were being utilised in drought affected New South Wales and Queensland.

Services like these, can be beneficial in both operational and personal capacities, and as employers, prioritising access is important.

Perhaps one of the best tools available to employers in managing mental health and safety is genuine consultation with workers. Employees need to be part of the discussion in identifying potential problem areas and how to best manage these, while also being assured of employer support to encourage a forum where genuine concerns may be raised. Employers should also ensure that all mental health issues raised by employees are taken seriously, while taking care not to treat such employees less favourably and subsequently expose themselves to a discrimination or tadverse action claim.

Things to keep in mind for your workplace:

  • awareness: make sure that you have relevant policies and materials in your workplace so that employees seeking help know where to look
  • consultation: talk to employees, discuss their concerns, and see if there are steps that can be taken to minimise work-related stress
  • attitude: make sure employees know that your business is okay with mental illness, and don’t allow or encourage any form of stigma in the workplace, and
  • support: don’t forget to offer the same support to employees whether they are mentally or physically unwell.

​Mental illness is a very real part of Australian communities. It is crucial that employers make proactive changes to their businesses to ensure any affected employees are adequately supported, which may lead to substantial rewards in terms of productivity and employee retention, not to mention minimisation of exposure to legal claims.

Please see the resources below or contact a member of our legal team if you or your workplace requires further assistance.

Resources for rural financial hardship

The Australian Government Department of Agriculture provides grants to state and regional organisations to provide free rural financial counselling to primary producers, fishers and small rural businesses who are suffering financial hardship. More information can be found here or by contacting Rural Financial Counselling on 1800 686 175.